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The next few days were blissful. They dawdled further down the river, only leaving the ship once to launch the skiff and explore the gaping entrance to a large cave.
“We could just keep going”, said Joby.
“Be like that time we left the City to go on holiday”, said Hillyard “And we didn’t come home for a couple of years!”
“After all”, said Joby “We don’t have to keep heading south, go anywhere near that accursed City, there are loads of rivers and lakes leading off from this one”.
“Let’s keep it an option for the future”, said Bardin “One day we will do that, if it all gets too much back there. We’ll head off as if we’re going off on another trip like this, and just keep going”.
“Get lost in the lakes again”, said Hillyard.
“Some might call us selfish for thinking this way”, said Adam.
“Only if they’re selfish themselves”, said Joby.
They took the horses ashore and explored the opposite side of the lake to the cavern they had found. The bare, treeless mountains and valleys baked in the heat. In the Winter it would be permafrost tundra. It was a countryside of extremes, but magnificently beautiful for all that.
“We’re definitely coming out here again aren’t we?” said Ransey to Bardin, as they hacked along the coastline.
“We’ll come up with a plan at dinner tonight”, said Bardin.
“Here it is, here’s the plan”, he said, later “We go back to town, and we run the brewery until next Spring. We then head off back here as if on another trip”.
“Do we keep it a secret what we’re up to?” said Ransey.
“Ideally I’d like to”, said Bardin “But what do we do about the brewery? If we suddenly take off with no explanation, we’ll drop Jarvis in it. Hillyard, do you have any ideas on that one?”
“Yes”, said Hillyard “Early next year we hand control of the brewery over to him. We say personally we’d like to pull back from the production side”.
“And then we take off as if we’re going on holiday”, said Ransey, who had clearly been discussing this with Hillyard.
“OK so”, said Bardin “And we explore the lakes, don’t go anywhere near the City. Let’s have a toast, to next year”.
On the last night of the holiday they had a musical evening in the dining-room. The beer flowed with even more abandon than before. At the end of it a few of them drifted up to the main deck to look at the perfect crescent moon.
Bengo was sitting on the deck with his arms round his knees, when Hoowie plopped down next to him, managing to drench him with some of the beer from his own glass in the process.
“Alright if I join you, Benje?” he asked.
“Alright if I dry my hands on your hair?” said Bengo.
“Aw, sorry about that”, said Hoowie “This has been a bloody brilliant holiday hasn’t it? Some fantastic moments”.
“No, you’re not having Bardy again”, said Bengo, who had a feeling he could see where this conversation was going “You’ve used up your quota for a little while. I’m gonna put him under lock-and-key when we get home”.
“We’re already at home!” said Hoowie.
“You know what I mean”, said Bengo.
“Hello, you pair of ragamuffins”, said Julian, approaching them “Enjoying the night-sky?”
“Hello”, Bengo giggled “Are you gonna take Hoowie below now?”
“When I’ve finished my cigar”, said Julian.
“I can’t believe we’re gonna wait several months before we come away again”, said Hoowie “We’ll never manage to wait that long”.
“We will have plenty to occupy us”, said Julian.
Bardin sashayed towards them. Julian gave him a boisterous smack on the behind.
“Look, just stop that”, said Bardin, a bit worse for wear.
“Just not possible”, said Julian “You know it’s not. We have to take our chances your beautiful posterior presents itself”.
“Our ship’s mascot”, said Hoowie.
“Oh very funny”, said Bardin.
“I think I need to take you to bed, Bardin”, said Bengo, getting to his feet “Before you flake out”.
“I shouldn’t have had so much to drink”, said Bardin, as Bengo gently led him away.
“It’s our last night”, said Bengo “It doesn’t matter”.
The following morning they breakfasted leisurely on fried fish and bread and butter, and weighed anchor soon after. A few hours later came the cry of “town view!” from Ransey up on deck, a warning that they were approaching civilisation once more.
Bardin stood on the main deck as they slowly chugged past the town, returning waves to the people on the quayside. Kieran came up behind him and discreetly patted him on the bottom.
“I see you’re the same”, said Bardin, observing that Kieran had put his trousers back on too.
“After Julian called me Sparrow Legs this morning, I’ve become extremely self-conscious about them”, said Kieran.
“That doesn’t stop him wanting to get his hands on them”, said Bardin.
“How are you?” said Kieran “Bengo said your bum was like a couple of little red billiard balls when I spoke to him just now”.
“My behind is completely numb”, said Bardin “After this holiday, I feel like I want to lie on my stomach for several days until some feeling comes back into it!”
“Sign of a good holiday”, said Kieran “If you like, I’ll come down later and massage some cream in”.
“That I would like”, said Bardin.
Ransey was due to put in a few hours at the boatyard office the day after their arrival home. Hillyard, having reassured himself that the brewery hadn’t been broken into in their absence, offered to drive him in, accompanied by Adam and Joby, who wanted to do some shopping. Julian announced he was coming with them.
“Julian, for heaven’s sake, this has to stop”, said Adam “I don’t need you accompanying me”.
“Just in case that bloody woman appears again”, said Julian.
Adam could see it was futile trying to argue with him.
“I’m not sure I wanna be out with you two”, said Joby “Probably end up treating me like some bleedin’ lackey”.
“You are coming and that’s final”, said Adam.
“Take Bengo instead”, said Joby.
“Bengo wants to mind the shop here”, said Adam “Bardin’s going to help him in the galley. I thought it would be rather sweet to leave them here together”.
Joby muttered under his breath.
“Did you speak, old love?” said Adam.
“No!” Joby snapped.
“What do I need a pinny for?” said Bardin “I’m only going to be washing-up and making tea!”
“Don’t want to get your lovely crisp white clothes sullied”, said Bengo, wrapping a pinny around him and tying it at the back “Anyway, it means I’ll get a tantalising flash of the back of your shorts every time you turn round”.
“Right, you two”, said Adam, appearing for a final pep-talk before he departed “I want your absolute promise that no food gets shoved anywhere it shouldn’t whilst I’m out. Bengo, if that happens, I shall box your ears”.
“Huh!” said Bengo “Bardy’s usually the one that starts it. He’s the naughty one!”
“And if he does, I shall smack his butt very hard”, said Adam.
“I still haven’t recovered from the hairbrush attack two days ago!” said Bardin.
“Then you have an incentive to be very good then, don’t you?” said Adam.
When Joby found out Lonts was coming with them as well, he made a last-ditch attempt to stay at home.
“He can carry all your stuff”, he said.
“The reason Lo-Lo is actually coming is because you are”, said Adam “He’ll be very disappointed if you pull out. Now stop complaining”.
“Oh blimey”, said Joby.
In the end Julian and Adam wandered (bickering needless to say) around the covered market on their own. Joby bought Lonts a tub of ice-cream and they sat together on one of the benches outside.
“This is nice isn’t it, Joby?” said Lonts, referring to the whole experience.
“Nice to leave those two to squabble at each other”, said Joby.
“A stranger listening would think they hated each other”, said Lonts “But they don’t, not at all”.
“Here”, said Joby “Haven’t had a chance to ask you yet. How do you feel about all this Adam and Bardin thing? Adam spending so much time ‘disciplining’ him?”
“Aw, I feel sorry for Bardin sometimes”, said Lonts “I know everyone says he needs it”.
“Not half”, said Joby “Anyway, he enjoys it. He’d be really disappointed if he wasn’t getting his bum smacked all the time. Probably run around squawking about feeling ignored”.
“He’s always been kind to me though”, said Lonts.
“Scared of you that’s why”, said Joby “You being a great big thing, and him a scrawny little git”.
Lonts hooted with laughter.
“He knows you can pick up a clown in each paw”, said Joby.
“Oh Joby, that’s so funny”, Lonts boomed, causing a mix of indulgence and alarm (depending on the nature of the observer) in the immediate vicinity.
“Eat your ice-cream before it melts completely”, said Joby.
“I have said to Adam that he smacks him too hard sometimes”, said Lonts “But he says Bardin can take it, and if he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t do it”.
“Yeah, don’t worry about it”, said Joby “Adam’s not a monster. Anyway he’s right, Bardin can take it. He’s like Kieran. Scary how tough and resilient they are sometimes”.
“I know, and Kieran’s really tiny”, said Lonts “I feel nervous standing next to him sometimes, as if I’m going to accidentally break him”.
“If Kieran hasn’t broken yet, with everything that’s happened to him”, said Joby “He ent likely to!”
Normally Ransey quite enjoyed his part-time job at the boatyard. He liked the feeling of bringing order to chaos, and he liked being the one who brought money home to the galleon. Today though he was finding it hard, and had to chide himself for his first-day-back-at-work-after-the-holidays mindset. It didn’t help matters that Wesley drifted into the office at lunchtime, looking like a miserable ghost.
“Did you have a good hols?” he asked.
“It was … very satisfactory”, said Ransey. He felt he’d better ask Wesley how he was, even though he wasn’t remotely interested.
“A bit peed off”, said Wesley, which was no surprise whatsoever “I think it’s the weather, too hot to work. And I’m bored with my job”.
“Oh dear”, said Ransey, pointedly opening a file and scanning the paperwork within.
“I’m starting to think we should have never left the City”, said Wesley.
“Well you know where it is”, said Ransey “You can always head back there“.
“Are you kidding me?” said Wesley “The Apocalypse is kicking off there. People are killing each other on the streets”.
Ransey couldn’t help feeling that Wesley had rather boxed himself into a corner with this conversation.
“Then it wouldn’t have been much fun staying there would it!” he snapped.
“No”, said Wesley, as though this thought had only just occurred to him “I suppose not. And it’ll be even hotter down there. These temperatures are weird for up here. Everyone’s saying they’ve never known a summer as hot as this one”.
“It’s true I wouldn’t normally expect it to be as torrid as this up here”, said Ransey.
Suddenly a man’s voice barked a query from the doorway, asking for the whereabouts of the boatyard owner.
“He’s gone home for a couple of hours”, said Ransey, squinting to try and get a better look at the man, who had his back to the afternoon sunlight “Should be back about four”.
The stranger turned and left without another word. Both Ransey and Wesley shot to the door to stare after him, but the man had disappeared round the corner of the boatyard entrance.
“Weird guy”, said Wesley.
“It’s this heat”, said Ransey “It’s making everything feel strange”.
Kieran had walked over to the brewery to pay a social-call on Umbert and Rumble. When he left he decided to walk around the back of the building in the shade. As he did so he espied a movement at the edge of the forest. He stopped suddenly and put his hand above his eyes to try and see better. All he could discern though was a brief glimpse of a pale face peering out from behind a tree.
“We’ve been on this kick before”, he whispered, recalling the sighting of the Wood Demon up near Crowley’s house the previous year.
He felt the skin prickle on his bare arms. He walked to the corner of the building, knowing that the creature would not dare emerge from the woods and step out into the glare of direct sunlight.
The eerie spell was broken by the raucous laughter of Bengo and Bardin, who had run naked out on the main deck, and were now chucking buckets of water over each other. When Kieran looked again, the creature had gone.
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